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23 Jul 2006
MENOTTI : Concerto for Violin and Orchestra / Cantilena e Scherzo / Canti Della Lontanza / Five Songs
Most Opera Today readers are probably familiar with Gian Carlo Menotti largely through his operas (The Medium, The Consul, Amahl and the Night Visitors, The Telephone, and others), and, if they teach or coach voice, may be more familiar than they’d like to be with pieces like “This is my box” and “Monica’s Waltz”, which have long been mainstays of the
“American aria” branch of repertoire for young singers.
instrumental music, and even his songs, are likely to be unfamiliar
territory. At least they were for me, and would have remained so, if this CD
had not shown up on my radar screen because the final 30 minutes or so of the
71-minute program comprise two sets of Menotti’s songs, performed
beautifully by Christine Brewer and Roger Vignoles.
Both of these artists bring their considerable talents to presenting these
songs, and the resulting performance certainly makes a case for the songs to
be better known. Unfortunately, the listener is given little help in this
area because the texts (written by Menotti himself) are not included in the
booklet. We find out that Elisabeth Schwarzkopf commissioned the Canti
della lontananza and are told that the songs are said to have been
written in response to the departure of Menotti’s partner, Samuel
Barber, from their life together. And, since Brewer’s English diction
is quite good, a determined listener (e.g. one who has to write a review) can
catch about 90% of the words to the Five Songs, enough to get the sense of
what the songs are about. And perhaps a fluent Italian speaker can do the
same with the Canti della lontananza, but I had to go through a
network of colleagues to find a copy of the Italian texts, and work out my
own translations from that—again, enough to know what the songs are
about. But how many listeners are going to work that hard? Whether
attributable (charitably) to copyright difficulties or (uncharitably) to a
producer whose background may be so firmly in instrumental music as to be
unaware of the importance of text in vocal performance, this is a grievous
These songs have been likened to operatic scenas, and in some spots they
do sound that way, particularly at the end of “La Lettera”, when
Brewer brings her full vocal and emotional force to express a phrase that
calls for it. But I hear a great deal of intimacy in these pieces, and the
piano line is as important as the voice in many places. I would not say the
texts are truly poems so much as an attempt by a sensitive and observant mind
to make sense of one’s feelings (or, at some points, one’s
curious lack of feelings) in the course of letting go of a relationship
(which is why it is easy to believe that they could have been written in
response to such an experience). Consistent with Menotti’s musical
work, the pieces are tonal, and the 1983 Five Songs in particular
are quite melodic. The Canti della Lontananza, while certainly not
completely declamatory or unmusical, sound more melodic in this performance
than perhaps they really are: one of the strengths that Brewer brings to this
music is the ability to sing a rather unlikely vocal line with expressive
phrasing and consistency between registers so that the line flows very
naturally. While there is a general sense of melancholy and loss pervading
both sets, songs like “My Ghost” and “Il settimo bicchiere
di vino” have a light enough touch to keep the keep the mood from being
too much of a downer.
Fans of Christine Brewer will not be disappointed in her performance of
these songs. Listeners whose main interest is in the songs themselves should
know that there is another recording of them available on Chandos, which I
have not heard, but it’s possible that the texts are included, which
would be a big plus. Those primarily interested in vocal music might also
prefer the other disc because it includes Menotti’s opera
Martin’s Lie, which may be even more of a rarity than the
passionately lyrical 1952 violin concerto, which receives a masterly
performance on this disc by Ittai Shapira and the Russian Philharmonic
Orchestra under Thomas Sanderling, and the charming 1977 Cantilena e Scherzo
for harp and string quartet, equally well served by the Vanbrugh Quartet and
harpist Gillian Tingay.